Responding to the request made by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan on January 5, 2022, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) triggered for the first time its military function—enshrined in Articles 2 and 4 of its charter—in order to assist one of its member states during nationwide protests. Although many are speculating what drove the January protests in Kazakhstan, this article will examine the timing of the CSTO’s military deployment. Despite multiple requests in the past, including from Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev during protests in 2010, and Armenia during its conflict with Azerbaijan in late 2020, the CSTO did not intervene. Such was the perceived passivity of the organization that a few months ago, a prominent think-tank asked bluntly: “Does the Collective Security Treaty Organization Have a Future?” What changed in 2022?
To answer this question, it is first important to understand why the CSTO was relatively dormant in the past, before considering the particularities of the Kazakh case. The CSTO’s passivity is driven by its lack of institutional autonomy and intra-organizational coherence, otherwise known as “institutional barriers.” Although the CSTO is often compared to NATO and some of its functions are undeniably similar, the CSTO does not exhibit a high degree of institutionalization.
The first barrier lies in the organization’s asymmetry: Russia contributes 95 percent of its military spending. This means that decisions regarding military deployments, despite being formally multilateral and consensus driven as per Article 12 of the CSTO’s charter, are largely influenced by Moscow’s interests and subject to its approval. Smaller member states have also been hesitant to involve Russian troops in their domestic conflicts, suspecting potential encroachment of their sovereignty. This, along with the unanimity-based decisionmaking process, has contributed to the CSTO’s record of inaction.
The second institutional barrier lies in member states’ differing threat perceptions. After all, the organization lies across three subcontinents with three corresponding “regional security complexes”: Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Southern Caucasus. Different economic interests, threat perceptions, and authoritarian consolidation mechanisms make it difficult to frame domestic or local conflicts as a collective security threat that outweighs individual national interests, which can be justified by Article 5 of the CSTO Charter (“non-intervention in internal affairs”).
These institutional barriers arguably explain the CSTO’s previous refusals to intervene. In 2010, Moscow and other member states did not regard the chaos that engulfed Kyrgyzstan (Bakiyev’s overthrow and the resulting violence in Osh) as a threat to their national interests, especially considering the country’s pattern of political turmoil and regime change. Additionally, concerns about encroachment upon Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty were voiced by Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov (when the country was still a member of the organization). Furthermore, in 2020, CSTO member states did not consider the Nagorno-Karabakh war—Nagorno-Karabakh being de jure Azerbaijani territory—and Azerbaijani soldiers’ border incursions into Armenia to be a security threat. Once again, strategic considerations trumped any rationale for intervention, and flexibility in interpreting the CSTO charter hindered a full response.
By contrast, the deployment of CSTO troops in Kazakhstan this past January was possible because these institutional barriers were overcome by higher concerns. The large Central Asian republic is, after Russia, the biggest economic and military power within the organization and, until recently, had been one of the most stable authoritarian regimes in the region. This makes Kazakhstan a “senior partner” within the organization due to its contributions and proactivity in not only the CSTO but also its “sister organization,” the Eurasian Economic Union (it has the same member states, except for Tajikistan). Thus, Kazakhstan is one of the most important strategic partners for Russia as well as the other authoritarian member states of the post-Soviet space. Consequently, this made the Kazakh crisis eligible for CSTO intervention.
Furthermore, the nature of Kazakh protests, at least initially, resulted from rising liquified petroleum gas prices due to the ongoing liberalization of prices amid the government’s overarching austerity policies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Seeing the growing pressure on Kazakhstan’s stable authoritarian regime, the CSTO’s other leaders concluded that if Tokayev’s regime collapsed, the “color revolution” would spread across the region, a constant fear of Eurasian rulers since the early 2000s. It is not an accident that all CSTO members and crucial regional non-member states like China and Uzbekistan converged around a narrative framing the events in Kazakhstan as a foreign-orchestrated, Western-backed revolution. Due to these two particularities, along with the rising political unrest in other member states such as Armenia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan, the Kazakh case was rapidly securitized which led to swift approval and deployment of CSTO forces. Given the sense of urgency—Tokayev had to be propped up quickly, no matter the cost or the procedures—this also explains why the United Nations (UN) was not consulted.
It is important to emphasize, however, that the CSTO forces sent to Kazakhstan did not undertake any military action, as some analysts incorrectly reported. Instead, CSTO forces limited themselves to safeguarding and cordoning strategic infrastructure such as power grids, water supplies, and arms depots. The CSTO’s presence, and its limited mission in Kazakhstan, speaks to the organization’s ability to change. Over the last decade, not only have the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Forces been enhanced through frequent and complex drills reflecting the challenges of modern warfare, but the organization also acquired the status of “regional international organization” which granted it full international legal responsibilities within the Chapter VIII framework of the UN.
Additionally, at the May 19, 2021, Dushanbe meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, a draft agreement on jurisdiction and legal assistance in cases related to the temporary presence of forces in the territories of CSTO member states was approved. The purpose of the document is to create a mechanism for cooperation between the competent authorities of CSTO member states, such as military police, military investigation units, military prosecutor offices, and military courts (tribunals) for addressing criminal and administrative cases against individuals who are part of the armed forces of CSTO member states. With the benefit of hindsight, this development is crucial for understanding the CSTO’s organization and intervention in Kazakhstan.
In light of the alleged intra-elite fights that occurred in parallel with the January 2022 protests in Kazakhstan, the CSTO’s intervention also had a symbolic function by legitimizing Tokayev during the unrest. Indeed, the deployment of CSTO troops was not an act of regional politics, but rather of domestic politics. The CSTO’s intervention in Kazakhstan and restoration of stability in relatively short order was a great showcase of its abilities. Since the intervention, the general secretariat of the CSTO, Stanislav Zas, has repeatedly emphasized the organization’s effectiveness, legitimacy, and readiness to act. During the completion ceremony, Zas noted that “Contrary to the negative assessments of CSTO activities imposed by some of our enemies, our Organization has shown its relevance and effectiveness, its ability to act quickly, decisively and effectively, without delay.”
While we are careful not to overstate the importance of the CSTO’s first intervention, three observations indicate the organization’s future potential. First, the CSTO is no longer a dormant organization but an active one, provided that its activities are not equated with only military intervention but with broader security management. Second, the organization clearly has the potential to be engaged in a wider geopolitical confrontation against the West, as signaled by the CSTO’s more proactive role not only in Eurasia but also in the Persian Gulf and Africa, at least at the declaratory level. Third and finally, the CSTO has proven it can work as a conduit for authoritarian solidarity by facilitating convergence on specific interpretations of the two normative pillars of the Eurasian security complex—avtoritet (authority) and stabil’nost’ (strategic stability)—while accommodating Russia’s hegemonic role in the region.
One final consideration lies in the international (Western, typically) depiction of the CSTO as an immutable entity, somewhat frozen in time. In fact, this “CSTO showcase” does not mean a sudden overhaul in the organization has occurred. Contrary to some who view the organization as a frozen and unchanging Soviet-style apparatus, the CSTO has been steadily evolving for years. What was originally a security treaty, signed in Tashkent in 1992, became an organization. Deeper and complex institutionalization efforts then took place in 2002 and in 2010, when the CSTO created the Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF), a military branch that can be authorized by the CSTO Collective Security Council for any contingencies. Therefore, the organization’s new “turn” in 2022 is part of the CSTO’s natural evolution as a regional organization, rather than a sudden change. The organization states as much, as General Secretariat Zas signaled the new and more active functions of the CSTO, while rejecting claims that the organization needs a substantial change in its framework. In sum, we see the commentaries regarding the organization as “frozen” stemming from a lack of attention and general unawareness of the last two decades of developments.
Siheon Nathaniel Choi is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. His interests are in the fields of authoritarianism, regionalism, and the politics of post-Soviet space and Eurasia. He can be reached at [email protected].